Citizen Action puts food on the table

From the preservation of huge swaths of farmland in the Hudson Valley and the Catskills to the cooperative nurturing of quarter-acre community gardens in New York City, the Open Space Institute believes in the idea that people and land support one another. As we protect our open spaces, they provide for us many times in return.

Profiled below are three of OSI’s Citizen Action groups, one working in Ulster County, the other two in New York City neighborhoods. Each group is focused, in its own way, on protecting healthy, sustainable food sources that in turn improve the quality of local residents’ lives. By promoting healthy living and respect for the land, these groups are bringing land conservation into our homes and onto our dinner tables.

Two years ago, Mara Gittleman was updating a map of New York City community gardens when she realized that gathering data about the amount of food the gardens produced could be more powerful than simply cataloging what was being grown. So, in December 2009, Gittleman launched Farming Concrete to conduct a three-year study measuring food production in the city’s community gardens.

Six months later, Gittleman's project joined the Open Space Institute's Citizen Action Program where it aligned with OSI’s goals of sustainability, enhanced communities and livable cities. By quantifying the value of community gardens, Farming Concrete also helps promote the preservation of open spaces in the city while fueling the stewardship of such spaces.

In 2010, a team of volunteers from Farming Concrete traveled to community gardens around the city, conducting outreach and recruiting city gardeners to participate in the study. Over the summer and fall growing seasons, 110 gardeners weighed all of their produce, mapped their garden beds and counted the total numbers of the crops that they planted. After analyzing the results, Farming Concrete found that in the 67 community gardens from which data was gathered, which make up a total area of just 1.7 acres, 87,700 pounds of fresh produce was grown and worth more than $200,000.

Although Farming Concrete compiled more than just numbers—anecdotes about the gardens’ communities and traditions emerged from the research as well—its study’s quantifiable data provides tangible evidence of the importance of community gardens to the city. Knowledge of their monetary value helps to legitimize community gardens as a form of public land use, which may help gardens threatened by land tenure conflicts to survive. The data that Farming Concrete gathers will be a resource for developing policies on urban agriculture, and may in fact spur on the creation of even more community gardens.

In Crop Count 2011, Farming Concrete hopes to expand its citizen-science research by mapping and inventorying even more of New York City’s gardens. This year it has expanded to include school gardens in its study. Gittleman is measuring success through participation in the research, and from the wide range of gardens throughout the city that are participating in the project, she sees that Farming Concrete is growing.

Being a part of OSI’s Citizen Action Program has been helpful for Farming Concrete not only because of the direct benefits provided by fiscal sponsorship, such as the ability to apply for grants. The organizers behind Farming Concrete had never started their own organizations before, so OSI’s advice has been invaluable. Additionally, networking among Citizen Action groups has allowed them to collaborate and learn from one another.

 The Brooklyn Food Coalition (BFC) was formed in May 2009 after the first-ever Brooklyn Food Conference. In February 2011, the Coalition joined OSI’s Citizen Action Program, rapidly becoming one of the most vibrant and active groups within the program. By raising awareness about and working toward a more sustainable food system, BFC addresses several of OSI’s target issues, including community building, livable cities and environmental sustainability.

The Brooklyn Food Coalition seeks to create a vehicle for grassroots participation in the food movement. As Nicole Taylor, BFC’s community outreach manager, explained, its goal is “to change the food system in Brooklyn, neighborhood by neighborhood.” There are currently 10 neighborhood groups, including groups in Sunset Park, Bed-Stuy, Bushwick/Williamsburg, and Park Slope, and they represent the diversity of Brooklyn’s population.

Another Brooklyn Food Coalition initiative is an effort to bring healthier, more sustainable food to neighborhood schools. Beatriz Beckford is BFC’s School Food Coordinator, and she works with a number of Brooklyn public schools, organizing parents and helping effect change in school cafeterias.

BFC has thus shown that it can make a difference, in turn motivating parents to get involved and orienting its work to what the parents want. Beckford helped two schools apply for funds to start gardens. Another success has been the implementation of salad bars in a number of schools, and a partnership with the Brooklyn District Public Health Office, which will be transferring interns from Hunter College’s School of Public Health to work with BFC. In addition to its work with the public health office, BFC collaborates with City Harvest, Brooklyn Rescue Mission, and Food Bank, all as part of the Food and Fitness Partnership of New York City.

Currently, the Coalition is planning the second Brooklyn Food Conference, scheduled for spring 2012. Whereas the first Conference marked a new beginning in Brooklyn’s food movement, this one is now a product of that movement. With its spotlight on universal access to healthy food, sustainable food systems, and social justice for food workers, the Conference will be focused on building neighborhood groups and encouraging activism.

As BFC fosters and directs existing projects, it continues to develop its presence in the Brooklyn community to expand its agenda in response to neighborhood concerns. Adhering to its grassroots nature, BFC is "asking people what they want, and then delivering," said Taylor.

 In 2009, the Rondout Valley Growers Association launched its Farm to Food Pantry program, a project in which farm overage—extra produce—is donated to Ulster County food pantries and soup kitchens. The following year, RVGA joined OSI as a Citizen Action group, and Farm to Food Pantry is currently coming under OSI’s fiscal sponsorship through RVGA. Farm to Food Pantry evolved out of annual field gleanings—the picking of crops that farmers do not intend to harvest—eventually becoming an organized program over the past three seasons.

The benefits of this work are many: healthy, local food that would otherwise go to waste is harvested and delivered to people in need. In 2009, over 26,700 pounds of fresh produce was distributed, and in 2010, the program expanded and handled over 59,500 pounds of produce—a $38,675 value.

Fabia Wargin, an RVGA co-founder and the current leader of Farm to Food Pantry, explained why the gleaning program was a perfect fit for RVGA: “Keeping our farms healthy helps to keep our communities healthy—it’s one of the basic ideas of the project. It is another way of reinforcing to our community the importance of farms.”

Farm to Food Pantry picks up biweekly donations between July and November from four participating local farms: Davenport Farms, Gill Farms, Saunderskill Farms, and the Woodcrest Community Farm. Donations have also come from Farm to Table Co-Packers and other farms and businesses as they have extra available. For help with distribution, program development and grant writing, Farm to Food Pantry collaborates with FAMILY, an Ulster County social service agency.

In addition to its distribution program, Farm to Food Pantry has continued to do gleanings and to process sweet corn, applesauce, soup, and tomatoes for distribution in the winter. When extra hands are needed, ULSTERCORPS, a grassroots service not-for-profit group, has spread the word and located volunteer help to get the work done.

In 2010, Farm to Food Pantry began work on another of its goals, the creation of a value-added product line that can be sold to help underwrite the costs of the project. Last year, volunteers conducted a huge gleaning of butternut squash and decided to make butternut squash soup.

“When we get a large enough donation to process, why not experiment?” Wargin said. “One of the big lessons we learned making the butternut soup is that producing a great product is only half of the equation. Recipe testing, storage, marketing, sales, distribution and recordkeeping are the other half. So, now we are looking to team with other groups with similar goals, so we can produce our small batch products for specific markets and projects, primarily as test scenarios for retail commercial products.”

That evolution, she realizes, will take a long time and a lot of effort. “We have created a unique program out of the trust and support of many people, and we are growing slowly.”

Nevertheless, she remains optimistic about the future, and thankful for the support of farmers in Ulster County. “I feel a great deal of gratitude and respect for our farmers and their families. Their generosity and kindness is amazing.

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